Running Straight Up: UM Scientist May Have Found Missing Link in Evolution of Flight
GIS For All: UM Project Spreads the NASA Technology Gospel
Easing the Pain: UM Professor Helps People Cope After Surgery
Precious Crab Blood: University Breakthrough Stands the Test of Time
Moss Unmasked: Researcher Finds Benefit of Common Forest Plan
Tom DeLuca makes his living in Missoula.
But the UM forestry professor has made a name for himself in Sweden, earning recognition in prestigious Nature magazine for his research on moss.
The Nature report detailed how DeLuca and three Swedish scientists had discovered that common feather moss -- found in forests in Montana and throughout the world -- produces a significant amount of nitrogen, the single most important mineral nutrient required for plant and animal life.
"Our work demonstrated that a significant portion of the nitrogen in boreal forests is coming from cyanobacteria that live in the leaves of feather mosses," DeLuca says. "This is a big finding because most often, feather mosses are looked at as a pest and something that inhibits forest regeneration. So these mosses are often destroyed to enhance forest regeneration after harvest."
No one really knows if moss helps forests grow, DeLuca says, but the bottom line is that trees, shrubs and animals could not survive without some form of nitrogen fixation, and this nitrogen appears to come from the cyanobacteria in the leaves of mosses.
"Interestingly, in the past it was thought that mosses actually inhibited trees from growing because they soak up water and nutrients," he says. "But the truth is that tree productivity is greatly limited by nitrogen and thus indirectly dependent on the feather mosses."
DeLuca, who has taught soils classes at the UM forestry school for the past nine years, was first invited to Sweden in 1999 to be part of a team researching forest ecosystems.
"I wanted to go work with the research team because the fire ecology of ponderosa pine ecosystem here is somewhat similar to the Scots pine forests of Sweden," DeLuca says. "I had read about their work, and I thought we could couple up on a few things."
DeLuca's initial visit to Sweden proved fruitful. So he went back in 2000 while on a sabbatical from UM and again in summer 2003. He's now a guest professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Umea.
give guest lectures and do research at the university," DeLuca
"It's kind of funny because nobody really likes to study these feather mosses because they are so boring, so common. But I had no idea I was going to be in on this kind of discovery. People had studied nitrogen fixation in feather mosses before, but they basically missed it," DeLuca says. "We found that nitrogen fixation in mosses is surprisingly high. We found that the most common moss on Earth fixes nitrogen at a high rate."
DeLuca's moss findings as well as other nitrogen cycling studies in Sweden have paid off on the UM campus as well. Based on his research in Sweden, DeLuca has secured three separate competitive grants this year alone to perform related work in Missoula.
"I learned a heck of a lot over there," he says. "It's allowed me to enter into new areas of research here."
-- By Gary Jahrig